I’ve had several people ask me what steps I went through to self-publish (Indie publish) my debut novel The Watched. I published on a shoestring budget ($400-$500 total). If you can hire a more experienced professional, always up your game that way.
There are many vanity presses out there who say they’re publishers. They will take your manuscript and “publish” it for a fee. That base fee may or may not include cover design and professional editing, and then they up-sell you on marketing packages. This is usually vastly overpriced. You’ll have to pay retail or nearly full retail price to get copies of your own book. This is an option, but not a great option. It’s an outright terrible option if you want to actually make a living as a writer.
Step 1: Write
I know, this should be intuitive but this is where most people who say they want to write a book or novel fall away. Do your research. Know what the “rules” or conventions for your genre. If you’re writing romance, the hero and heroine must end up together at the end and if they don’t, it’s not a romance. Every genre label comes with reader expectations. You can play around with a lot of things when you self-publish but the 3-act structure and genre expectations/rules are inviolable IMHO.
Some of my favourite writing teachers are James Scott Bell, Jeff Gerke, Stephen King, Donald Maas, Marcy Kennedy and a few others (none of those links are affiliate links). Some great websites that provide great info for free are Kristen Lamb’s blog – Warrior Writers. Becca and Angela run Writers Helping Writers. Brian’s website the Positive Writer (this post links to a bunch of the best writing websites on the interwebs). I love The Creative Penn.
Step 2: Self-Edit
Learn how to self-edit. The more editing you can do for yourself the better your writing will become over time. Take a break between the first and second draft and learn to be objective. There are a lot of great books and blog posts out there on how to do this well.
Learn about hooks and leads, scenes and sequels, pacing, voice, and conflict. Study how to write a synopsis. Skimping on this step will hinder your success as a writer more than any other step further down.
Step 3: Find Beta Readers
A beta reader is someone who is willing to read a polished first draft of a manuscript. Jami Gold has a fabulous post about what to look for in a beta reader. **Tip: If you’re writing horror, asking your romance-loving friend to read your story may not provide the most valuable feedback. Find people who enjoy reading the kinds of stories you’re writing. Make sure they’re willing to give you honest feedback, otherwise the process won’t help you improve your story.
Step 4: More Self-Editing
Beta readers will offer advice like: I didn’t like that character. It was hard to get into. They won’t tell you how to fix a problem and they may not be able to articulate exactly what the problem is. It’s your job as the writer to take their feedback and diagnose the problem. A patient comes to a doctor with a complaint – my elbow hurts. The doctor must sort out the possible problems and then ask intelligent questions to narrow down a diagnosis.
Not all advice from the beta readers will mean you need to make a change. Editing by committee creates a story that no one really likes. This discernment comes with experience so keep at it.
Step 5: Hire an Editor
If a writer is the pane of glass through which a world is seen, the editor is the glass cleaner. Their job is not to rewrite a story, but removes the streaks and cracks and other blemishes in the glass so the reader sees the picture or world the author intended. Skip this step at your peril!
What you need at this point is a big picture edit. Some editors give this different labels, typically it’s called a substantive edit. The editor will look at character arcs, conflict, turning points, pacing, voice, worldbuilding, inconsistencies, etc. You’ll receive a marked up Word document with all of their suggestions. Often, a good editor will explain or give a brief reason about why they’re making that suggestion. Learn as much as you can.
Editing typically is charged on a per-word basis. Depending on the depth of the edit, the price goes up with more time invested. There are different levels of substantive editing and I’ve seen prices vary from .01 cents a word to .25 cents a word. At the higher end of that scale, I would be hiring an experienced editor who has worked with traditional publishing houses and can point to successful books they’ve edited in my genre, there will often be some form of back and forth consultation, and advice on marketability and so on. If you were to sign with a traditional publisher, these are the editors they would hire.
Step 6: Self-Edit Again
Step 7: (optional) More beta readers.
Step 8: Cover Design
Spend money on this step. If you don’t spend money on any other step, spend money here. A bad cover will ensure no one reads your book. Know what kind of cover you’re looking for. Look at other covers in your genre. The going rate, based on my research, is $99 for an ebook cover design for Indie authors. If you want a print cover also, there’s an additional cost for that. If you want social media headers or book marks, etc. those would all be an additional cost.
Be sure to budget for any artwork you’ll use for your cover. As an artist, always respect the copyrights of other artists. If you want a fancy or specific font, there may be a fee for the rights to use that as well. Ask around and get recommendations. Most cover designers post a portfolio on their websites. Are they already being hired to do covers in your genre? Do you like those covers? My designer turned around a finished design inside two weeks.
Step 9: ISBN
If you want to sell your book online or in a physical book store, you need an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). In Canada, ISBNs are free. You do need to create/apply for an account with Library and Archives Canada (website link here). There is no fee, but allow at least 2 weeks for login information and from there you can request an ISBN. Allow about 10 days to receive an ISBN.
Step 10: Self Edit and Format
By now you should have received feedback from your beta readers and been able to do a final draft of your project. This is not the final product yet.
I use Scrivener to write because it will create digital files for me. Whatever program you’re using, this is where you get the book looking just right. Your titles, table of contents, author notes or acknowledgements (front matter), etc. Get it looking the way a reader would see it as much as possible even within Word.
Step 11: Hire a Proofreader
If you know someone who is very good with grammar and spelling, you may be able to save a few dollars here. Online retailers will remove your book if readers report typos and grammatical mistakes.
A proofreader will look at everything: the spacing, spelling, grammar, titles, verify sources and table of contents. They’re the last set of eyes on your work. Proofreading is generally cheaper than substantive editing, but you will receive a quote based on the submission of the first few pages of your work. If you are horrible at spelling and grammar, expect to pay more than if you were sending them a mostly clean manuscript to look at. Which seems fair to me.
Step 12: Banking and Taxes
You could really do this at any stage in the process. Think through how online retailers will pay you for any books sold. Understand that every online retailer will take a “cut” of the profit. On Amazon, your royalties are determined by the book price – read more about that here. You can use Paypal or have money deposited directly into a bank account depending on the retailer. These retailers will handle any sales tax and just send you the remaining profit on a designated basis (often quarterly). Then I pay tax to the Canadian government as I normally would for my writing business.
As a Canadian, I can sell books through Kobo without any problem because Kobo is a Canadian company. To sell books through Amazon (because it’s based in the USA) I had to contact the IRS and apply for a tax identification number. I wanted to invoke the treaty between Canada and the United States that says I only have to pay taxes in my country of residence not both countries (or some such language). Without this number, Amazon and other American retailers will withhold 30% of my earnings. So, even if your plan is to self-publish through Bookbaby, Draft2Digital or Createspace, this same tax info will be required.
It was difficult getting information online about exactly what form I needed (a W-8BEN or an ITIN or an EIN) and I’m not an accountant so I’m reluctant to give specific information here. Take note of the date on the information you’re reading and keep in mind that tax laws change so find the most up to date info you can. Most online retailers have detailed instructions on what to do. Be sure that all your tax ducks are in a row with the Canadian government as a self-employed artist (there are specific tax laws in Canada regarding artists – we don’t need to make a profit year over year for instance). Do you need a business number? All that jazz.
I dreaded this step, but once I sat down to figure it out it was actually pretty painless. I will say that I was on hold for about 15 minutes with the IRS. I spoke with Mrs. Cunningham who was tremendously helpful and charming and carefully explained each step. I had my tax number at the end of that 15 minute conversation which I could use immediately and was sent official documentation via mail. I’ve had no problems using that number with online retailers. I was able to complete the tax forms online with each retailer. Some of my writing friends said they had to send in paper copies of the various forms but I was happy to be given an online option. If there was an error I knew immediately and could fix it.
Contact an accountant familiar with tax laws for artists.
Step 13: Interior Book Design
Go ahead and make the changes suggested by your proofreader. Now, you need to format the inside of your book also known as interior design. I use Scrivener – a program that cost me $40 and allows me to make changes as needed and export the appropriate digital file. Amazon requires .mobi files and all other retailers require .epub files.
You can pay someone to do this for you, and if you are including photos or want special graphics for chapter headings or charts and graphs, this is likely a wise choice. You could purchase software like Adobe InDesign and do it yourself. I have no experience with the conversion software used by websites like Smashwords (the meat grinder), but that’s also an option. There are different requirements for print and ebook files, so if you’re doing the formatting yourself make sure you do a bit of research on that. If you are doing a print book, your cover designer will need to know the width of the spine and the cover size to create a design so you might have to rearrange a few steps.
Marcy Kennedy sent this link to a great blog post from Janice Hardy: Understanding Your Ebook Formatting.
I did price out having the internal formatting done professionally and for a simple ebook (no graphics, photos, graphs, etc) I was quoted a price of $99. There would be additional fees for any changes after the initial file was delivered, I’d expect.
Step 14: Publish
Now you have a completed manuscript in mobi and epub file formats. Create accounts on the various retailers you want to use and upload them. You’ll have to include your tax and banking info.
Because I don’t have a Mac, I used Draft 2 Digital to get my book on iBooks. I used Draft 2 Digital to list my book on Nook (Barnes & Noble), Scribd (no romance titles allowed), and a couple of others. I uploaded directly to Amazon (and then listed it in the Canadian, British, and Australian stores also) and Kobo. Don’t forget to create an author account on Goodreads.
I would also offer a reminder to follow through on the legal deposit of the print book and/or digital file to Library and Archives Canada. (You’ll be sent instructions about this when you request an ISBN.) They will want an epub file of your ebook or a print copy if your ISBN was for a print version. I do believe they can fine you or have some other method to compel you to submit a copy of your book at your own expense. In my case it was a simple email and stating whether this book was to be archived with open or restricted access (details in link above).
Marcy Kennedy sent the following tip: “One thing that I would add is to read the Terms of Service for each distributor carefully, especially for Amazon. They have unique, specific requirements for many elements, such as where in your book your Table of Contents needs to appear and what you’re allowed to put in your book description. If you violate their terms of service, they will take action–anything from a simple warning email, to suspending sales of your book, to closing your account entirely (though usually that’s reserved for major infractions).”
Marketing is a whole other set of steps which I haven’t touched on here.
If you have published a book in Canada and have found your experience to differ from mine, please leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to collect as much expertise as possible in one place as a resource.